Countersignalling – If you have to say it, you ain’t it.
There is a quote from a well known fashion blog that said “If you have to say it, you ain’t it”. This was referring to clothing on which flattering words were written, like “hot stuff”, or “supermodel”. My hope is that by the end of this post you may laugh occasionally when you see 35 year old women wearing these types of shirts and pants (usually sweatpants) in the supermarket.
My goal, however, is that you understand a concept from Cal Newport’s Studyhacks blog called Countersignalling.
Cal’s post was originally about whether or not to do a large laundry list of things so that the sheer amount of accomplishments on the list will impress people enough to get you into a great college. He decided in his lectures that he would preach a different view.
The Brag Stops Here
To do this, he turned to a study done in 2002 by economists Nick Feltovich and Rick Harbaugh, along with statistician Ted To. These researchers found out that that smartest kids in class don’t raise their hands as much as the average.
They used a field of social science called signalling theory to find out why. Signalling theory basically means that both people and animals take certain actions or say certain things constantly to convey that they have a higher value. Examples include peacocks with lots of feathers, Two-thousand dollar suits, and professors who insist on being referred to as “Dr” First Name.
People signal using things like this because people assume that getting these things are difficult, and since they are difficult for the average, then this must mean that those that have them are above average.
What kills the signalling strategies of so many is the side channel, or “the word on the street”. If the word on the street runs counter to the signalling of a person, that person not esteemed as highly. Such people may be called “posers”, “wanksters”, wanna-be’s, or be accused of “fronting”.
Back to the classroom. The top students are already known as being the top because their accomplishments are being evangelized by others throughout the hallways and among teachers.
The students in the middle have to signal that they have value by raising their hand frequently to answer questions. Correct answers imply that they are smart, brave, and of higher value than those who are on the bottom (who neither raise their hand, nor have word of mouth on their side)
Therefore, the best students who have the word on the street, notoriety, or whatever you want to call it, on their side demonstrate high value nonverbally, because “only a student who is truly confident about his skills can afford to avoid constantly trying to show them off.”
That, my friend, is countersignaling. The situation of having other people evangelizing your high status to the point where you rarely, if at all, need to do it yourself.
The short version of this post: “actions speak louder than words”, and “the strong actions in the right place speak louder than the weak actions in the wrong place”
You can read the full article here, or by following the link up above.
Stuff for you to take out of this
This should show you that the main goal is not to do a lot of things on your own that signal that your greatness. Your goal is to get the side channel (other people) to say great things about you.
Authenticity comes from having a strong side channel. Good examples are The Dave Matthews Band, or John Mayer.
If you continue to signal incessantly, you might come across as unlikable, even if you have a high amount of success with your music. I jokingly call this the Kanye West effect. He’s good, but the amount of times he feels the need to remind us verbally is way more than needed. To be fair to Señor West, he is not the only one who does this but is simply the most recognizable one right now.
The good news is that instead of needing to promote yourself with a long list of accomplishments, you can cut that list down to maybe one-fourth it’s size. The great, yet sometimes uncomfortable news, is that you must become the type of person that everyone else brags about, and that takes work.
Thanks once again to Cal, I can show you three paraphrased things to keep in mind to make the transition less uncomfortable:
1. Don’t send mediocre signals. An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for a gig, business endorsements, new fans, or a record deal) is to shout out a long list of achievements none of which are all that difficult to achieve;
“my album is out!” Buy it because it exists!
playing songs that are technically proficient but very very long
using lines like “we are taking the world by storm”…I’m pretty sure you’re not.
None of these signals convey a particular impressive trait, and the list as a whole makes you seem like someone desperate to differentiate yourself from the low ability candidates. The top people don’t have this worry.
2. Send a small number of strong signals. People are already overloaded with information as it is. Help the reviewer follow a high ability story line by having one or two activities that are really impressive — that is, required an desirable trait, like high creativity or deep values, and not just persistence. Seeing a small number of excellent things, and no low-value bragging, will convey a strong sense of confident ability.
3. Prime the side channel. In the formal model, you have no control over the side channel. In the real world, you do. Be interesting. Make people like you. Actually convey the traits that you want the channel to communicate. If you’re a hip hop group, for example, this means you should actually be thought provoking, energetic, witty people that can really tell the audience how it is. Fan’s take notice of this, and potential partners who have their hand on the pulse of the market will find it difficult to ignore you.
Sometimes, doing less can say more. Always good news in a world that constantly demands more out of you.
If you can think of artists that do low value bragging or are great at using the side channel, tell them to me in the comments.
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